The princes had assembled in Aurangzeb’s private quarters before leaving for their respective provinces. He shouted “Takhliya” to ensure complete privacy. Aurangzeb looked at the assembled shahzadas. The youngest of them, Kambaksh, twelve years of age now and managing the territory of Delhi, sat a little closer to him than others signifying himself as Aurangzeb’s favourite. Looking around to ensure that there was no one within earshot Aurangzeb said, caressing his beard, “I thought it was an appropriate moment to talk about certain things before you leave for your respective territories.”

Azam said, “All we know is how to follow your commands, Hazrat.”

Aurangzeb was aware of Azam’s daredevil attitude. Ignoring his comment he continued, “This may be true for all matters related to the territories. I am here to talk about something different.”

“We are always eager to hear Abba Jaan’s words,” Akbar said.

“You must be aware by now of the circumstances under which I ascended the throne at Delhi,’ Aurangzeb said, his voice taking on a serious note. None of the shahzadas responded waiting for him to continue. “I killed Dara Shikoh and put Badshah Shah Jahan in jail.”

“I am told you received such instructions from the Allah,” Akbar said.

“You came to power on your own strength. What is wrong with that?” Azam asked rhetorically, puffing his chest. Muazzam, listening to his brothers, was silent. He continued looking down at the carpet, his hands behind his back.

“I am not asking for your opinion on whether what I did was right or not. What I want to ask is whether or not you want to occupy the throne. Don’t you feel it is high time you took charge?”

The question was unexpected and the shahzadas glanced up at Aurangzeb, surprised. The only one unperturbed was the young Kambaksh. He replied, “Yes, why not? I am eager to take charge. That is why I insisted on getting the subah of Delhi.”

The others relaxed a bit hearing Kambaksh’s response. They assumed their father wanted their frank opinion. Aurangzeb said, “No doubt all would like to ascend the throne but only one can. I want to know from all of you: Who do you think is most eligible? Shahzada Muazzam is the eldest. Let me ask him first.”

“Shahenshah has answered the question himself.”

“I would like to hear it from you.”

“I wish the Shahenshah a long life. But if he ever considers retiring from the throne to spend the rest of his life in the service of Allah, I would, as the eldest of the shahzadas, be willing to take charge. I thus consider myself the most eligible to take your seat.”

Aurangzeb, moving the beads of his rosary, observed the others who were silent. He said, “Let me ask my second Shahzada Azam for his view.”

“I would like to clarify something before I answer,” Azam said. “I hope Abba Jaan does not intend to create a rift amongst us brothers by asking each one of us for his opinion.”

Aurangzeb was perturbed for a brief moment. Regaining his composure he said, “Azam, I wish to precisely avoid such a situation. I would consider myself blessed if, while I am alive, I don’t have to see the death of any of my sons.”

Azam realized his blunt question had not been taken well, and he looked down saying, “I apologise. Please pardon me.”

“It is not a question of mistakes. I like your direct approach. Anyway, tell me what you feel.”

“I will, if you promise not to get angry with me.”

“Go on…”

“I don’t know why my elder brother believes he is the rightful heir,” he said, throwing a snide glance at Muazzam. “The person proclaiming the throne should check his antecedents. I have impeccable antecedents both from my mother as well as my father. I am thus the most eligible.”

Aurangzeb let a rare smile flicker across. He turned towards Akbar who said, “My birth has proven lucky for the Badshah. He has won numerous victories since my birth and I feel it is my right to claim the throne.”

“So what do you have to say?” Aurangzeb turned to Kambaksh.

“All my three brothers aspire to be the emperor but they forget a simple fact; one needs to be born to the Badshah. I am the only one who was born after you ascended the throne. I am thus the most eligible.”

Pointing his forefinger heavenwards, as if receiving the blessings from the angels, Aurangzeb muttered, “Ameen.”

Getting up from his seat, Aurangzeb hugged all his four sons and said, “I am happy that you spoke the truth without fearing anything. Whatever Allah wishes will finally happen. Devote your life in the service of Allah and you will get what you want. The one who serves with most devotion will be rewarded. But remember, your victory is still years away. An astrologer has predicted that I will live to be a hundred and twenty-five! You have a lot of time to serve Allah.”

He hugged the shahzadas once more and then bid them farewell.

Excerpted with permission from Shahenshah: The Life of Aurangzeb, NS Inamdar, translated from the Marathi by Vikrant Pande, HarperCollins India.